It’s been over three years since Raekwon first promised A Better Tomorrow was on its way. Back then, it was an unnamed project; nonetheless, the appetites were suitably wetted for a release from the group frequently acknowledged as one of the most influential of the past twenty years.
Then it all turned rather sour, mixed messages galore. Cries of “Will they? Won’t they?” were echoed by RZA, GZA, and Raekwon, who seemingly took turns in giving the media a good old-fashioned run around. In Raekwon’s own words, the group have been through some shit. More specifically, he has had some fairly public beef with de facto creative director of the group, RZA. RZA wanted A Better Tomorrow to be a humble record; Raekwon saw this as entirely at odds with the group’s nature. Having listened to the album, I’m inclined to agree with the latter. There’s an uncomfortable identity crisis occurring throughout. The public line may be one of reconciliation between Raekwon and RZA, but the music appears to tell a different story.
Ruckus In B Minor opens the album, and does so with some promise. ODB is immortalised through the wonderful medium of sample. Method Man interjects with the Hook “Still Number 1”, and for a moment it’s as if the 90s never ended. But the 00s arrive, and much like the apocalyptic promise of Y2K, A Better Tomorrow meets its abrupt anti-climax, leaving everyone involved wondering why on earth they got so worked up in the first place.
It has its moments, though they’re sporadic, short lived, and often don’t even last the entirety of a track. In particular, Miracle represents one of the more bizarre productions, with a melodic R&B-style hook, juxtaposed by some hard-swinging verses. It’s overproduced at best, eventually breaking down into some sort of Basshunter-style Eurodance orgy.
The track most in keeping with the Wu we all know and love is, oddly enough, a bit of a filler. Crushing Egos is two uncompromising minutes largely dominated by verses from Raekwon; no melodic hooks here. However, what it does most potently is shed a bit more light on the creative struggle at the heart of this record. It’s a glimpse of the album Raekwon wanted.
Don’t get me wrong; the melody isn’t always unwelcome. On Keep Watch, a rolling beat is interspersed by the jangle of guitars and another R&B hook. It’s minimal, unlike a large amount of the record, and though it may not feel exactly like a Wu track, it’s genuinely rather enjoyable.
By the time Wu-Tang Reunion came around, I was honestly quite tired. The unfortunate truth of A Better Tomorrow is that it’s really too much effort to be enjoyable. There’s some of the old Wu Tang in there, but it’s fleeting and easy to miss. What makes it all rather frustrating is that it’s not got anything to do with ability; if this album proves anything, it’s that all the tools for a great Wu Tang record are still to hand. Unfortunately, they’ve given the toolbox to the wrong man. It would be unfair to dump all the blame for A Better Tomorrow’s failings at RZA’s doorstep, though if the vision of a more humble Clan is indeed his own, then he certainly needs to take some of it. Trying to tone down one of the most hard-hitting, in-your-face groups of the last twenty years was always going to be a bold, if not entirely misguided plan.
A Better Tomorrow doesn’t really change anything as far as the reputation of the Wu Tang Clan is concerned; they will always be one of the most important artists of their time. What it does represent is a disappointing confirmation of what many of us suspected: they will never be the same.